Population Revision 'Big Deal' For D.C.

By Lori Montgomery and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 22, 2006

The U.S. Census Bureau acknowledged yesterday that it had underestimated the number of people living in Washington and revised its data to reflect the largest increase in the city's population since 1950.

The decision -- the result of a challenge by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams to the 2005 census estimate -- immediately adds more than 31,000 people to Washington's official population, increasing it to 582,049.

Williams (D) hailed the new population figures as evidence of an end to a decades-long exodus to the suburbs and said the city is well on its way to his goal of adding an additional 100,000 residents.

"I am deeply gratified that the Census Bureau agrees that, after a 56-year decline in population, we have finally turned the corner and begun the increase in the District's population I have pushed for throughout my time as Mayor," Williams said in a written statement. "This . . . will mean greater revenue from a number of federal programs, and it also represents an acknowledgement of what we have been saying all along: that the boom in residential development in the District represents a sizable increase in population."

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, called the decision "a big deal."

"This is real. D.C. is increasing its population at a very significant level," Frey said. The addition of 31,528 people "makes up for all the losses of the 1990s and is equivalent to the loss in the 1980s as well."

Joy Phillips, associate director of the District's State Data Center, said the city learned of its victory yesterday afternoon via e-mail. The e-mail was followed by a letter faxed to the mayor from Enrique J. Lamas, chief of the Census Population Division.

"We have completed our review of the submitted data and are pleased to inform you that we have accepted your challenge to the U.S. Census population estimate for July 1, 2005," Lamas wrote.

The city's challenge stems from state population estimates released in December, which said 550,521 people were living in the District as of July 1, 2005. That number represented a decline of about 4,000 people from July 2004 and a drop of more than 20,000 from the official 2000 count of 572,059.

Between decennial censuses, the bureau releases annual population revisions based on birth and death rates and migration trends. In December, the District challenged the new numbers, arguing that those statistics failed to capture a boom in housing construction, the conversion of vacant properties into occupied units and an influx of people reflected in tax filings.

By that estimate, the District argued, about 577,500 people lived in the city in July 2005.

In its first challenge to census figures, the city submitted building permits from 1999 to 2005, Phillips said, in addition to school enrollment figures showing that public charter schools had absorbed much of a decline in the number of students attending public schools. The city also submitted data showing that the number of people filing taxes in the District had remained steady between 2004 and 2005 and that Pepco was serving an increasing number of residential units.

Yesterday, census officials announced that they were ready to accept the District's calculations, tacitly acknowledging that the city's renaissance is real. The census also granted the city an extra 4,549 people beyond the mayor's request.

The revision marks the most significant increase in the city's population since it peaked in 1950 at 802,178. In every census since, Phillips said, the city has recorded a decline, although mid-census estimates during the late 1990s twice bumped population slightly upward.

In addition to boosting confidence in the city's revival, the new numbers are likely to mean more funds from the federal government, Phillips said. Census estimates are used to allocate funds in a number of programs, including Medicaid, social service block grants and foster care.

Seven other cities, including St. Louis, successfully challenged the 2005 estimates, but census officials did little to mark the occasions, other than noting the changes on its Web site.

"The Census [doesn't] offer apologies," Phillips said.

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